Cinematic Releases: Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018) - Reviewed

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? opens with a beloved, familiar scene: Fred Rogers at the piano.

In his quiet, earnest voice, he speaks openly and simply about emotions, life experiences, and the comparison between musical bridging and the journey from one place in life to another.

Morgan Neville’s documentary about the life, death, and lingering influences of America’s favorite neighbor unfolds into the story of how this kind man became a part of so many children’s daily lives. A magnificent tribute to the life of Fred “Mister” Rogers, the documentary mostly concentrates on Rogers’ career in television, and ends just after his death in 2003, with a few dalliances in Rogers’ childhood and a few modern instances of internet rumors. It serves as a robust illustration of why Mister Rogers is such an important man in television history, and why so many of us still love him so fiercely, fifteen years after his death.

Perhaps the most wonderful thing about this documentary is its unflinching view of Rogers himself as a human being; it is not terribly surprising to find that many view Mister Rogers as a saintly man, a perfect man – someone who was constantly civil and gentle, open-minded and serene. But Rogers had faults, just as any of us do, and struggled with self-doubt quite often. He battled internally to reconcile his deeply held religious beliefs with his love for the homosexual people that he loved as much as he loved his own wife and children, coming to accept them even after he had fought to come to terms with what that would mean for him. Having grown up in a household wherein he was not always free to express himself, Rogers carried what anger and frustration he felt inside him, eventually becoming the person he himself most would have needed as a child – a man who was openly loving, immensely sensitive and caring, and available to listen to even the smallest, quietest voices.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? highlights the ways in which Mister Rogers turned a medium he hated – television – into a vehicle for teaching children that “feelings are mentionable and manageable.” From the origins of Daniel Striped Tiger, the sweet, shy puppet character that would come to represent Rogers’ personality the most authentically, to the infamous speech Rogers gave to Congress in defense of public television, the nature of the man speaks for itself. The documentary lingers on the personal memories of many of Rogers’ contemporaries, friends and family to provide an honest, grounded look at who he was, not just as an entertainer but as a man, a husband, a father. His sense of humor, his resolute spirituality, his abiding affection for the arts, particularly music – these are pieces of Fred Rogers that come together in a patchwork collage, one as lovely as a day in this beauty-wood.

And, much as Mister Rogers himself might, it asks us what we are thankful for. It asks us to consider all of the people in our lives who have helped us to become what we are today. It asks us to love the people around us, regardless of age, race, gender, or sexual orientation. To ask “What would Mister Rogers do,” it suggests, is to consider not just the words we say, but the ways in which we show emotion, the awareness we carry with us of what other people may be thinking and feeling, and how our actions affect the world around us.

Mister Rogers dared all of us to take on the world with a spirit of proactive kindness, regardless of our personal misgivings or fears about opening ourselves up to people very different from us. He defied convention, never spoke down to children, and raised up those he loved most – even as he, himself, fought an internal battle with demons of inferiority and futility in the wake of a world that seemed altogether too loud, vulgar, and violent to respond to touch as soft as his.

But soft as it was, that touch was immensely powerful. For those who have grown up with Mister Rogers and his wonderful Neighborhood, in particular, this documentary is a stroll through all the difficult questions children have, all the scary and angry feelings that Rogers encouraged never be bottled up, but shared openly and forthrightly. Beyond a rose-tinted series of memories, lie bright and curious sparks – subversive ones that ask deeper, darker questions about the inner workings of even the parts of ourselves that we hide from others. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? honors the rebel in Rogers, too, as it challenges our perceptions of who he was, and reaffirms that he was exactly the person we remember so fondly and hold so dear to our childhood hearts. It reminds us that he was a steadfast advocate of equality and of dignity for all people, especially during times that pushed back against him for his acceptance. It shows us sides of Fred Rogers that not many were privileged to witness during his lifetime, and contests the rumors that persisted following his death.

Its pacing perfectly balanced, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is the homage that Fred Rogers truly deserves. Whatever our age, the child that lives within all of us can rejoice in the spirit of Mister Rogers – and within that spirit, that genteel, wise spirit of inclusivity and openness, we can make the world a much more beautiful place for ourselves, as well as each and every one of our neighbors.

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-Dana Culling